Pentarchy, after the Greek for “five leaders,” refers to the five patriarchates in the early church. Originally, these patriarchates were located in important Roman cities that were significant for Christians for several reasons. First, the Christian community in each city was founded by one of the Twelve Apostles. Second, the cities contained large Christian communities led by a prominent bishop. The five patriarchates and their founders are: Rome, founded by Peter; Constantinople, founded by Andrew; Alexandria, founded by Mark; Antioch, founded by Peter; and Jerusalem, founded by James.
Although all five patriarchates still exist, several factors contributed to their decreasing role in Christianity. The bishops of Rome had historical problems with the apostolic roots of Constantinople. Schisms divided the early church, especially Alexandria and Antioch. In the seventh century, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria fell to Arab Muslim armies. After the Latin sack of Constantinople in 1204, the churches of East and West, which had drifted apart, definitively broke communion with one another. And in May 1453, Constantinople, which had assumed dominance over the remaining Eastern patriarchates, fell to the Ottoman Turks, leaving Rome as the only patriarchate in the hands of Christians. The ensuing vacuum opened the way for the creation of other patriarchates, such as Moscow, “the Third Rome,” to grow in influence. Nonetheless the five ancient patriarchates still exist and function in different ways in the Eastern and Western churches. Following is a brief history, listed in order of prominence according to the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Rome. Christianity came to the capital of the Roman Empire within 25 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Two of the most important Christian leaders, Peter and Paul, worked in Rome. The presence of their tombs in Rome made the city a center for pilgrimage. The bishop of Rome was always given some type of primacy as the bishop not only of the city of the tombs of Peter and Paul, but as the bishop of the Imperial Capital. When the seat of the empire moved East to Constantinople in 330, the role of the bishop of Rome took on increasing importance, especially in the West.
Constantinople. In 330, the Emperor Constantine moved the Imperial Capital to the Greek city of Byzantion. He and his successors played a major and at times questionable role in the history of Christianity. It was unthinkable that the bishop of the new capital, the “New Rome,” should not enjoy privilege equal to that of the other patriarchates. Thus, the patriarchate of Constantinople was erected. Though created after Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, it played a huge role. Presently, the patriarch of Constantinople — modern Istanbul — is the “Ecumenical Patriarch,” and he is considered the first among equals in the Orthodox Church. Since the fall of Constantinople, the number of Christians in the patriarchate has decreased. Relations between Rome and Constantinople, once hostile, have improved greatly since Vatican II.
Alexandria. Founded by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was the literary and cultural center of the Greco-Roman world. Christianity came very early to Egypt. It was among Egyptian Christians, known as Copts (from the Greek word aigyptos, meaning “Egypt”), that Christian monasticism first developed. In contrast with Antioch, Alexandria had its own school of theological thought. Copts today make up an important community in Egypt.
Antioch. The capital of the Roman province of Syria, Antioch was the place where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). The New Testament several times mentions Peter being in Antioch, which eventually produced many important theologians who contributed to a distinct theological school. Conquered by the Muslims, sacked by the Crusaders and subject to large earthquakes, the city lost its importance both in the political and ecclesiastical worlds. Its ruins are near present day Antakya in Turkey.
Jerusalem. Considered the “Mother Church,” Jerusalem was never very influential. Its destruction by the Romans in the year 70, and the expulsion of the Jews as the Romans transformed the city into a Roman center in 136, contributed to Jerusalem’s lesser role in the pentarchy. In April 637, Patriarch Sophronius surrendered the city to the Muslim Khalif, Umar ibn Khattab.
CNEWA is an institution of the church of Rome, yet it works with Christians who make up all of the ancient patriarchates.